We Need a Little Christmas

Friday: Christmas Eve Eve

We left for Blackwater Falls State Park (http://www.blackwaterfalls.com) on Saturday, the morning of Christmas Eve, and the day before was a whirl of activity. I’d finished my work for the week on Thursday so I could go to the dentist in the morning Friday and pack for the trip. Beth took off work early and she met me at Union Station as I was coming back from the dentist. We admired the big Christmas tree Norway sends to Washington every year and visited the model train display the kids, especially Noah, used to love when they were little. Then we had lunch at Shake Shack and headed home.

I mopped the kitchen floor and did a couple loads of laundry and when the kids got home I had Noah vacuum the dining and living room floors and everyone packed and we took June’s present to Megan’s house and picked up pizza to bring home. All this time there was a tree tied to the top of the car that had been there since Thursday. We were taking it to West Virginia. After dinner, the kids opened gifts from my mom and Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby so we wouldn’t have to pack them. June got books from a series she’s reading and a new basketball and Noah got a gift certificate. “Merry Christmas Eve Eve,” I told June when she went to bed.

The last thing I did before collapsing into bed was to make gingerbread dough to take with us. We hadn’t had time to make any holiday sweets, what with the kids in school and Noah overloaded with homework until two days before Christmas. But I had another motive for baking the gingerbread at the cabin. Eighteen years ago, we spent Christmas in another cabin in the same park with Beth’s parents, her brother, her brother’s then girlfriend and now wife. Beth and I arrived first and made gingerbread before anyone else got there. To this day, Beth’s mom still talks about walking into the cabin and smelling the baking gingerbread and how happy it made her.

Christmas Eve

We left a little after ten and arrived around two-thirty with a stop for lunch at a very festively decorated little Italian restaurant with excellent garlic knots. We also went into the dollar store next to the restaurant, looking for cookie cutters because I’d forgotten to pack those. The man at the counter practically yelled, “Merry Christmas!” at us and I couldn’t tell if it was genuine merriment or political aggression. Maybe we looked like the “Happy Holidays” types. As it was I was just a little nervous about driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia with our “I’m With Her” magnet still on the car bumper. Anyway, they didn’t have any cookie cutters.

Check-in for the cabins was at four and we were hoping they’d be lenient about it because we were eager to set up the tree and get dinner started, but they weren’t, so we had to wait in the lobby of the lodge for an hour and a half. Fortunately, Beth’s mom arrived almost the same time we did, so we all sat around the gas fire and caught up with each other.

Once we got into the cabin, we unpacked and decorated the tree and put presents under it and adorned the mantle with boughs Beth trimmed off it. Then we had chili and cornbread YaYa made (she did most of the cooking while we were there and she fed us well). Then we watched Frosty the Snowman and one by one, we went to bed, ready for Christmas.

One my friends decorated her house for Christmas earlier than usual this year, saying “I’ve never needed Christmas more.” I had some trouble getting and staying in the spirit, but I kept trying and sometimes it worked. As I mentioned this was my second Christmas at Blackwater and it was Beth’s third (her family had Christmas in a cabin there the year she was nine). It seemed like a good year to get far away from everything.

Christmas

I told the kids they could open their stocking gifts at six at the earliest and to be “quiet as mice” until seven. The surprising thing is this worked. Noah slept until seven-thirty, so it was easy for him, but apparently, June opened her stocking at 6:25, right outside our door, so quietly that I thought the faint rustling I heard was Beth’s mom going to the bathroom. Later she told us “You wouldn’t even know I was a kid” from what was in the stocking—some mint tea she’d wanted at the tea shop in Rehoboth, a tin of mints, an orange, a spa cloth, some gloves, and some peppermint Hershey’s kisses.

The rest of us opened our stockings all together and then the rest of the gifts. June got the two things she wanted most, a 3D pen and a gift certificate to get her hair dyed. The pen came with a book of projects and she got busy with these right away. By the time we left, she was almost out of rods for it. She made a pair of eyeglass frames, earrings, a butterfly, a picture frame, and some red and white berries to transform a pine cutting into mistletoe, under which Beth and I were obliged to kiss. She also got clothes and a book/DVD set of Anne of Green Gables and I don’t remember what else.

Noah’s gifts were even more grown up than June’s—a set of flannel sheets, pajama bottoms, gift certificates and three loaves of bread from his favorite food catalog, to be delivered between now and February. The first loaf—cranberry-pecan arrived today.

I got several books, including a Shirley Jackson collection and a Shirley Jackson biography, my two favorite teas (hazelnut and black chocolate), plus lotion and soaps in many scents, and flower seeds. Beth got flavored sugars, basil-infused olive oil, her New Yorker subscription renewed, a gift certificate for a local coffee shop, and the new Springsteen memoir.

YaYa’s main gift was a Google Home. We spent a lot of the day making requests of it—to play the radio, set timers for cooking, even to flip a coin to settle a dispute between the children. She was quite pleased with it. She also got a Carly Simon memoir and a mug with deer on it and some soap with a cabin embossed on it to remind her of the cabin.

After we opened presents, I read to both kids, then everyone but Noah took a walk along the edge of the river canyon and by a half-frozen pond. The sides of the canyon were dotted with evergreens and bare gray trees and cut with a long waterfall on the far side.

It was peaceful by the pond—the ice was a dull silver; the open water was shiny. June wandered by the edge, breaking off little pieces of ice. The trail went on and we might have walked further, but YaYa had a not quite healed fractured toe and Beth was feeling ill. When we got back to the cabin, she went straight to bed while everyone else ate lunch and she stayed in bed all afternoon.

The kids and I made gingerbread cookies while she was asleep. In the absence of cookie cutters, we used glasses and knives and a pizza cutter, and the top of a Tupperware container to shape circles of various sizes, people, a caterpillar, the first initials of our names, and a smiley face as big as a dinner plate. We decorated with bits of hard candy, as I’d also forgotten the dried cranberries we usually use. But it was fun to improvise and I think the kids will remember this year’s cookies for a long time to come.

YaYa made spinach lasagna for dinner and Beth got up to eat, though she went back to bed while the rest of us watched Frosty Returns. And then Christmas Day was over.

Boxing Day

Beth was feeling better the next day, so after Noah did some pre-calculus and Spanish, we went out to lunch and then we went to see Blackwater Falls. It’s a 57-foot fall on the Blackwater River. There’s a boardwalk of steps that goes down to various viewing platforms. It was a warm day, in the fifties and sunny and some of us didn’t even wear jackets—but there was ice along the rocks near the bottom of the falls, and rapidly dripping ice along the rock walls to our side as we descended. The water going over the falls is stained brown from the tannin and very loud as it crashes to the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight.

Back at the cabin, Beth and Noah watched Revenge of the Sith (they’ve been making their way through all the Star Wars movies over the course of the past year or so) while YaYa took June swimming at the lodge pool and I wrote this.

Then Noah and I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a YA novel about growing up Latino and gay in the Southwest in the 1980s I highly recommend. While we read, he started to feel ill, so he skipped dinner, which was YaYa’s signature baked macaroni and cheese and spinach pies she buys from a Lebanese bakery in Wheeling.

Our dinner conversation turned for the first and only time on the trip to the sad and frightening moment we’re in politically. It came up because YaYa was talking about being in high school and she mentioned her civics class was called “Problems in Democracy.” It seems like a good title for Noah’s current AP Government class, though it’s called NSL Government (National, State, and Local Government), a somewhat less appealing course title. But then again, YaYa graduated from high school in 1961, right on the verge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, so democracy had its own problems then, too, didn’t it? We turned our attention from our national nightmare to Nightmare Before Christmas, which YaYa, June and I watched until it was time for June to go to bed.

Some More Days

Noah still felt ill the next day and Beth had relapsed so he spent the day in bed, emerging around four o’clock for a banana and some toast—his only meal of the day, and she spent the day on the couch, making her way through the Springsteen memoir. YaYa took June back to the pool and they were gone for hours.

Around four-thirty, I went for a walk. It seemed like a good time for winter walk. I’d see the sunset and if I walked an hour, I’d be back before full dark. I set out along the road in front of the cabins, and returned via a cross-country ski trail behind them. It was a straight, narrow trail with yellow-brown grass and tall, slender, bare trees swaying in the wind on either side. The sky reddened and then darkened and clouds blew quickly across it. I stumbled on a playground near a picnic shelter, well, just swings, and I sat on one and swung for a while, with the lyrics from Suzanne Vega’s “Freeze Tag” going through my mind:

We go to the playground
In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime
Wintertime
Wintertime
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night

There’s so much we’ll need to say no to in the coming months and years, loudly and repeatedly if we don’t want to lose our way as a country, but it’s also important to remember to say yes, too, to ourselves, and to each other. I’m still working on that.

Beth made tacos for dinner and June contributed a tiny piñata to each place setting. She made them out folded notebook paper and filled them with bits of ribbon candy. She drew designs on them I thought might be poinsettias or snowflakes, but she said they were just abstract decorations. After dinner, YaYa made drinking chocolate with condensed milk and whipping cream. June said it was “as think and rich as melted chocolate bars.” It’s a quote from the Polar Express, June’s favorite Christmas book. We drank it while we watched the rest of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The next day, our last full day in the cabin, everyone woke up feeling well. Beth made pancakes for breakfast and all the womenfolk went for a hike, leaving Noah to soak in the bath and do some Government homework. (His teacher gave them a series of small assignments do over break and was perverse enough to call it an “advent calendar,” even though there was no chocolate involved and it started on Christmas Eve instead of ending then.)

We started with the Elakala Falls trail, which was about as much hiking as YaYa wanted to do, so we split up there and she went home while we tackled the Balanced Rock trail and then used the Shay Run trail to get back to the lodge where we’d parked the car.

It was cold when we set out—in the mid-twenties—but sunny and still so it didn’t feel too bad, though Beth and I both wished we’d thought to put on long johns under our jeans. The trails were surrounded with ferns, rocks covered with moss and lichen, evergreens of all sizes, including a lot of saplings growing quite close together, and towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves curled against the cold. There were icicles on the boulders and needle ice pushing up out of the ground all over. Beth was quite taken with these intricate crystal formations.

The water at Elakala Falls and in all the little creeks and runs was reddish brown with tannin and where the sun fell on it, it glowed. All along the Balanced Rock trail but especially near the end and at trail intersections, people had built cairns. June took pleasure in adding to them, and collecting icicles, and walking along a fallen log like a balance beam. The log was on the ground on one end and stuck in the fork of a tree on the other so it was inclined and slightly bouncy, making it a challenge, but she didn’t fall. And of course, at the end of the trail, we found the Balanced Rocks themselves, two boulders resting on each other.

After lunch, there was another expedition, YaYa and Beth took the kids tubing on artificial snow, while I stayed home to read. When everyone got home, Beth took the decorations off the tree and I read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a Road Dalh story, to Noah. It’s about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks it and serves it to the detectives who come to investigate. Apparently, his English teacher thought it would make cheery Christmas reading. (It’s actually a fun story, though I probably just wrecked it for you.)

We had noodles and cabbage with veggie sausage for dinner and then Beth and Noah took the denuded tree outside and came back to report the sky was full of stars—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers, plus Mars and Venus.

Beth and June played a set of Christmas songs together on the violin and then Beth played “Silent Night” while June sang it. YaYa was a suitably appreciative audience. After Beth diagnosed and fixed a problem with the gas fire, we watched a little bit of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town while June toasted marshmallows on said fire and we had more drinking chocolate.

The next day we checked out of the cabin and did a little shopping at the lodge gift shop. While we were there it started to snow hard after hours of sleet. It was the first real snow we’d seen the whole time we were there. The timing seemed cruel, as Beth loves snow and she loves Blackwater canyon. I suggested we stay, but we left, for fear the roads might get bad. Within twenty minutes we’d driven entirely out of the snow, though back at the park they were supposed to get six inches. (We did get a little snow squall of our own today in Takoma Park, but it only last a half hour or so and melted almost immediately.)

Despite illness and the lack of snow, we did spend time with each other and appreciated the natural beauty of one of Beth’s favorite places. I think we all got a little Christmas.

Moderate Thrills

On Tuesday evening we got back from an eleven-day road trip to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. It’s been so long since we took a trip longer than a week that it felt luxurious to be away from home that long.

The main event was a family reunion in Wheeling. For five days we stayed in a cabin in Oglebay Resort with around twenty relatives, mostly descendants of Beth’s aunt Carole, plus other local relatives who dropped by the cabin daily. If twenty people sounds like a lot to fit in a cabin, don’t worry. It was two stories, with eight bedrooms, each equipped with two double beds. It was like a small hotel.

Because Carole and her late husband Gerry moved to Ireland while they were raising their family, her kids, most of her six grandkids, and her infant great granddaughter still live there, though Carole now lives in Wheeling, where she and Beth’s mom and their two sisters were raised.

1) Morgantown, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon

On our way to Wheeling, we stopped in Morgantown. Beth’s parents met at West Virginia University and as we were also going to stop in Oberlin, our own alma mater, later in the trip, I observed we were visiting the college towns to which Beth, Noah, and June owed their very existence.

The reason for our stop in Morgantown was to visit a friend from our own college days. Stephanie was Beth’s first-year roommate in Noah Hall, where Beth and I met the following year and after which we named Noah. That’s why when she was letting us in her front door she said, “Hi, Noah. I lived in your hall.”

A brief story about Stephanie: For much of my first year of college I hung around the edges of a social group that centered around Beth and several of her friends. Stephanie was away my first semester and sometime during the spring semester, shortly after we’d met, she said to me out of the blue, “Do you write poetry or prose?” I was startled and alarmed and felt as if she had seen right into me because I did write fiction. It was years before I realized she was just playing the odds. We were at a liberal arts college and I was an intensely shy kid who observed more than she spoke. Of course I was a writer.

Stephanie and Cris just moved to Morgantown, where they’ve both taken jobs at the West Virginia University, and she was eager to show us the new house, which is lovely. They told us we were their first guests and put out a big spread for us—fruit salad, apple fritters, olives (much to June’s delight), homemade bread, and cheese. We ate and chatted for about an hour and a half about all manner of things—their move, things to do in West Virginia, and how June came to own a small colony of snails. We were sorry to leave after such a brief visit, but the reunion beckoned.

2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Evening to Friday Morning

We arrived at the cabin on Saturday evening. The rental was Friday to Friday, but another big group had arrived just before us, so there was a festive let’s-get-this-party-started atmosphere as we ate a dinner of cheesy rice bake and spaghetti and meatballs made by Beth’s cousin Sean.

We ate well all week. Beth’s mom and Carole made four lasagnas, and Beth made a big batch of her signature gazpacho with salt-crusted potatoes. Beth’s aunt Jenny made a peach cobbler and Sean’s daughter Rebecca made multiple pans of brownies.

People were arriving and leaving all week, not to mention the in-town relatives dropping by, so it was never exactly the same group, but by the end I knew who nearly everyone was. There was a lot Olympics watching and game playing and keyboard playing over the course of the week. Eanna, Sean’s youngest son, learned the music for two songs from Matilda so June could perform them for an assembled crowd of relatives two nights in a row. (He did the same thing with songs from Annie four years ago when he and June were seventeen and six. He’s a very sweet young man and he and June make a great duo.)

Over the course of the week, the group completed a thousand-piece puzzle of the Wizard of Oz. My contribution was eight to ten pieces in a poppy section. Many people helped finish the puzzle but Noah probably worked on it more than anyone. The puzzle seemed to help him interact with people, which isn’t always easy for him. It made Beth so happy that she went out and bought another puzzle of a wizard in his workshop looking through a telescope when it looked like the first one was almost done. That one got finished, too.

We celebrated two birthdays with cake. Carole’s seventy-ninth birthday party was Sunday night and this was the big event of the reunion. There was a cookout and Sean made two Indian curries (his specialty) and he gave a nice speech about how Carole has always made the places she’s lived—in several countries and several states—feel like home. There was an enormous cake decorated to look like Oglebay, with little trees and a lake and rocks made of licorice. There were probably at least forty people at the party, ranging from Carole’s ninety-something-year-old aunt to her eight-week-old great granddaughter. As it was the only night all of them were present, we took a picture of the six Junes—Andrea June (Beth’s mom), Elizabeth June (Beth), Beth’s cousins Meghan June and Laura June, our June, and the youngest, eight-month-old Delaney June, the daughter of another cousin. They are all named after Beth’s grandmother, Ida June, who went by June.

The Irish contingent was very sporty and they were always going off to mountain bike, play tennis, run, or swim. We went to the pool in different configurations almost every day. I usually went and June always did.

Some people went on day trips—there was one to Falling Water, and after we checked out of the cabin, most of the Irish went on an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., which was experiencing the hottest day of the summer with a heat index of over 110 degrees. We stayed behind.

We did go on the outing to Coopers Rock State Forest. The more ambitious people in the party left early and took a long hike while the rest of us joined them for an “epic picnic” (in Beth’s cousin Holly’s words) and then we all took a short hike to an overlook and admired the gorge. Next some of us took another hike to the bottom of the rock and back up again. A few of us squeezed into a narrow, damp crevice in the rock where the temperature fell about fifteen degrees in a few steps. The kids and I scrambled under an overhang lined with a thick layer of dead leaves and Noah saw a salamander and all of us saw a toad. There were huge millipedes all along the trail. It was a rough, rocky climb back up, especially for Jenny and Holly, who were in flip-flops.

On the last day at the cabin we took it easy. Beth and Noah spent most of the morning and good bit of the afternoon finishing the second puzzle. June got passed from one group of pool-goers to another and then after lunch, I took her again. Afterward, as we walked along the wooded trail back to the cabin, she was softly singing songs from Matilda. During the summer I often fret about the ratio of structured activities to down time, because she basically wants to do everything.  But at that moment, I thought we might have gotten it about right.

3) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Friday Afternoon to Saturday Morning

Have you seen the article going around Facebook about the difference between a vacation and a trip? The gist is that if you take your kids or visit extended family, it’s not a vacation, it’s a trip. I think it’s a little hard on trips, because I wouldn’t want to spend most of my time away from home without my kids and I enjoy time with my and Beth’s family as well.  But it’s true there’s a difference between getting away with just your spouse and being in a larger group. And by this measure, Beth and I hadn’t had a vacation in four and a half years, and then only if you count weekend getaways. Well, Beth’s mom helped us rectify that by taking the kids for about twenty-four hours so we could go to Pittsburgh alone.

After we checked out of the cabin Friday morning, we hung out at Beth’s mom’s house for a while and then Beth and I drove to Pittsburgh, stopping at a nice little Mexican restaurant in Washington, Pennsylvania. We stayed at a fancy hotel called The Mansions on Fifth. It consisted of two early twentieth-century mansions—one gray stone in an Elizabethan revival style and one Tudor and red brick. Inside the bigger building, where we checked in there was stained glass and carved wood paneling everywhere. We were staying in the smaller building, which was a little less grand, but still lovely.

Once we got settled, we went out to matinee of Florence Foster Jenkins. We watched Citizen Kane with Noah last fall and I was curious if the talentless singers were based on the same historical figure. I’m thinking yes. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really more sad than funny. It’s very well acted, though, and we both enjoyed it.

We weren’t hungry for dinner yet so we went back to the hotel and relaxed a while. Eventually, we had dinner at a barbeque joint, where you pick what kind of meat or tofu you want and then three sauces from a wide array. You get to taste as many sauces as you like before you chose and that was fun. We got classic tomato, a vinegar-based one, and a honey-based one. There were also a lot of sides and we got cornbread, stewed tomatoes and okra, and purple coleslaw. There was a television on and while we ate we watched part of the U.S./Serbia men’s basketball game.

Next we went out for gelato at a place with more flavors than I’ve ever seen. We got five between us. I liked the peach best. Back at the hotel we watched more Olympics until bedtime, or past it, actually. In the morning we had breakfast at a diner and then brought coffee back to the room where we read quietly until checkout time. I know. We’re maniacs.

(Back to #2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon to Sunday Morning

We drove back to Wheeling, reunited with the kids, and spent the afternoon at Beth’s mom’s condo, Carole’s condo and Carole’s condo’s pool. Noah made a raft out of pool noodles and floated on it, which is his favorite thing to do a pool. I did fifty laps, which sounds impressive, except it’s a tiny pool. Everyone else splashed and soaked in the pool.

Back at Beth’s mom’s house I took a short nap and we had Chinese takeout for dinner with Carole and Meg.

4) Sandusky, Ohio: Sunday Afternoon to Tuesday Morning

We drove to Cedar Point, the amusement park of Beth’s childhood. It’s also kind of a romantic place for us, as Beth and I went twice when we were in college, once alone and once with a group of friends the week between finals and my graduation. The kids have been there three times now, once when June was a baby and Noah was five, which neither of them remembers, three years ago, which they do, and this time.

Noah knew which rides he liked last time and June knew which ones she wanted to ride but couldn’t before because she was too short—and this year she could ride almost anything in the park because she’s 52 inches tall with crocs on—so we headed in the direction of Iron Dragon, a hanging coaster that’s just about right for all of us.

The Iron Dragon is officially a “High Thrill” ride (a 4 on a scale of 5), but this points to a problem with the ride ratings at Cedar Point. I would call most of the 4s “Moderate Thrill” rides, a designation they actually apply to the sky tram and the like. Meanwhile, the 5s (“Aggressive Thrill Rides”) encompasses such an enormous range that Noah joked they should have another category called, “6, Aggressive Thrill Rides…No We Really Mean It This Time” because there are some crazy-scary rides at Cedar Point, enormous coasters that go straight down or have part of the car hanging off the side of the track or one that just shoots the car up and down a U-shaped track that looks like two twisted devil horns over and over.

We don’t go on any rides like that. Beth’s never been much for big coasters. When I was twenty-two I rode the Magnum, which at the time was the tallest coaster at Cedar Point and in the world, but those days are beyond me. Noah’s currently the bravest in absolute terms. He was the only one to ride a level-5 coaster, the Corkscrew, which is a fairly low to the ground looping coaster. June and I almost did it with him, but we bailed out of the line. June might be the bravest relative to age, but she’s had more amusement park experience than Noah did when he was ten, so it’s hard to say.

A lot of our conversation at Cedar Point consisted of what coasters we would ride, what we wouldn’t ride, what we rode in our youth but wouldn’t now, what we might ride when older, and what we might ride if offered a million dollars to do so. At one point we had the following conversation:

June: Would you go on that for a million dollars?

Me: I’m tired of deciding what I’d ride for a million dollars.

Noah: Would you decide what you’d ride for a million dollars for a million dollars?

Anyway, once we got to the Iron Dragon we learned they were running beta testing for a virtual reality version of it so you couldn’t ride the regular version until the next day. You had to be thirteen to do the virtual reality ride and that kind of thing sometimes makes me sick, so Noah was the only one to do it. There was a three-page parental permission form I had to sign in about as many places as the forms when we refinanced our house last month.

In the virtual reality version, you are riding on a dragon and you can’t see the track so you don’t know what’s coming next. Noah said he liked it but he prefers the unenhanced ride. June was disappointed not to be able to ride it right away, but we promised to come back the next day. So we did the Mine Ride and The Woodstock Express, which was the first coaster June ever rode. “It’s emotionally important to me,” she said. We visited a petting zoo, which had an eclectic collection of farm animals, rabbits, llamas, alpaca, kangaroos, and tortoises. When it got dark we rode the Ferris Wheel, where Beth took pictures of the park rides all lit up in different colors.

The last thing we did the first day was watch a show which featured singing, dancing, acrobatics, fireworks and just plain fire. It was kind of like one long music video with a medley of pop songs, a startling number of them from the 80s.  “We’re the target demographic,” Beth said to me, with surprise.

The next day we finally rode the Iron Dragon. One thing I like about it is how it swoops between tree branches and over a misty lagoon. It almost is like riding a dragon. It’s gentle enough for Beth and June loved it.

My top priority that day was the Blue Streak, the smallest of three wooden coasters in the park. I love wooden coasters but they are scarier than metal coaster of the same size and as I get older I scare more easily, so I needed to do it early in the day before I lost my nerve. Noah agreed to go with me, even though it scared the pants off him the last time he rode it, when he was twelve. As we were getting strapped in, I told him, “I am having some second thoughts about this,” but then we were off and it was so much fun, just exactly how much thrill I want out of a coaster, and I was glad I did it. And Noah liked it this time, too. June watched and decided to wait until she was a bit older, which was a relief to me.

Later the kids rode the Wind Seeker, a swing ride that slowly rises three hundred feet into the sky, spins you around for panoramic view of the park and lowers you. I have no desire to be that high in the air, so Beth and I sat that one out and watched the kids’ bare legs, a big pair and a little pair ascended up to skyscraper heights.

In the afternoon, Beth, June and I went to Soak City, the water park within Cedar Point. Noah wanted some down time and stayed at the hotel. We all did the lazy river and June and I did some water slides and Beth and June went into the wave pool. I left Soak City before Beth and June, but independently of each other, we all stopped to wade in Lake Erie on the way back to the hotel.

Back at the park in the evening, the kids and I rode the Iron Dragon a second time and the kids rode the Wind Seeker, also for the second time. June played a bunch of carnival games, which are harder than the ones at Funland, so she didn’t win anything, which was a disappointment, but by then she was out of money and we were out of time, because our moderately thrilling road trip was almost over.

5) Oberlin, Ohio: Tuesday Morning

We had breakfast outside the hotel, gazing for the last time at Lake Erie before we hit the road. About an hour into the drive home, we stopped in Oberlin. As we did the last time we were there, three years ago, we walked and drove around the campus, showing the kids places we’d lived and posing Noah in front of his hall. The kids listened politely as I said things like “And that’s where I lived the first semester of my senior year…” We got whole-wheat doughnuts at Gibson’s bakery because that’s what you do when you visit Oberlin, and we ate them at a table facing Tappan Square.

Noah said, “The next time I come here I could be touring it.” We’ve often joked that he has to apply to Oberlin, if only to say he was named after the dorm in his essay, but it was the first time he’s indicated he might just do it.

That evening, we pulled into a parking garage in Silver Spring, one town over from home, for a dinner stop. “Our House” was had come up on a playlist we were listening to and I sang along: “Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard.” It would have been better, I guess, if it had happened as we pulled into our driveway, right before reuniting with our two cats, but it was a good enough ending for a nice, relaxing trip, with just the right amount of thrills.

The Band is Playing

It’s Saturday and the band is playing
Honey, could we ask for more?

Prairie Home Companion theme song, adapted from “Tishomingo Blues,” by Spencer Williams

This is the story of two goodbye shows. The first was given by someone you’ve probably heard of—Garrison Keillor is retiring as the host of Prairie Home Companion this summer and Beth bought tickets to his last show at in the Washington, D.C. area as a birthday present to me. The show was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

The other man you probably haven’t heard of unless you had the very good fortune to have a child in an elementary school instrumental program at June’s school or the school where Noah attended fourth and fifth grade. His name is Mr. G, and next year instead of splitting his time between the two schools, he will teach at just one, so June will have a new orchestra teacher in fifth grade. Mr. G’s last concert at June’s school was Wednesday.

Saturday: A Prairie Home Companion

Prairie Home Companion has been on the air since 1974, with a brief interruption in the late eighties and early nineties. I must have started listening to it around the time it came back on the air in 1992; that’s when I got hooked on public radio. When I was in grad school in the mid to late nineties, I’d often knock off studying or grading around six p.m. on Saturdays and then I’d clean the apartment for an hour or two while listening to it. Back then, rather than being near the end of my Saturday nights, its eight o’clock ending time might be when Beth and I left to go out to a movie or something. We used to do that kind of thing a lot in our younger days. Anyway, it’s how I used to transition from work to play in the middle of the weekend.

Nowadays I’m more likely to listen to it while I’m cooking dinner with Noah—his night to help me is Saturday—though sometimes we listen to music of his choice instead. I rarely listen to a show all the way through any more, but I still enjoy it and find it something about it deeply comforting. Keillor, a tall, bespectacled almost seventy-four-year-old man who loves words and stories, has a deep singing voice, a sometimes dry wit and liberal politics, often reminds me of my Dad, who would be a year younger than Keillor if he were still alive. That’s part of the appeal, no doubt.

When Prairie Home Companion travels it comes to about a half dozen venues regularly. One of those is Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia, which is just a stone’s throw from where we live, but despite this, we’d never gone to see the show. I’d never suggested it because it’s not really Beth’s thing, but when I heard Keillor was retiring I told her I’d like to go, so she bought tickets. By the time I asked, the seats under the roof were sold out, but I didn’t mind sitting of the lawn. You can picnic and if the weather’s nice it’s quite pleasant. We’ve probably seen more shows at Wolf Trap on the lawn than under the roof.

Speaking of shows we’ve seen there…Wolf Trap is a place we used to go a lot more often pre-kids than we do now and while Beth and I were on the lawn waiting for the show to start we made the amusing discovery that our lists of shows we remember seeing there have surprisingly little overlap. We’re both sure we saw performances of Beauty and the Beast and West Side Story there and probably the McGonagall sisters. But she doesn’t remember seeing a Buddy Holly tribute act I thought we saw there and she insists we’ve seen David Sedaris at one of the smaller, indoor theaters on the property and I thought surely I’d remember that because I really like him. We both think we might have seen the Indigo Girls there, but we’re not entirely certain. What has happened to our youth? I mean I know we’re not in our twenties or thirties anymore but shouldn’t we be able to at least remember that time? What are we going to reminisce about when we’re eighty?

I guess it’s a good thing I started blogging. At least there’s a record of our forties.

Anyway, back to the show. We got to the parking lot around 4:35 and walked to the lawn where we set up our blanket. We had to walk around a while to find a spot as the lawn was already packed but we found a place we could squeeze in with a good view of the stage. (The pictures were actually taken by our neighbor Chris, who was also at the show. They were on the opposite side of the lawn, so you can imagine us just to the side of the footbridge in the background of the picture.)

The show was very much as I expected. There was old-timey music including a Civil War song, a jazz band, a Guy Noir sketch, some Trump-related political satire, a parody of a Dylan song (“Don’t Think Twice”), and of course, the Lake Woebegon monologue. The only unexpected parts were the fifteen minutes before taping began when Keillor wandered through the audience, even up on the lawn, engaging in a sing-along with the audience. It being Memorial Day weekend, he started with a medley of patriotic songs, but soon it was Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (There was more singing with the audience after the taping ended as well.) I have to admit I was just a bit star-struck when he passed within fifty yards of us and then when he got back on stage and sang his opening song, “It’s Saturday, the band is playing/Honey, could we ask for more?” I felt a little thrill to actually be there.

About a half hour into the show, we dug into the picnic Beth packed for us, Havarti cheese, crackers, watermelon, a vegetable slaw, couscous salad, and chocolate chip cookies. The day had been hot—I thought he must have been very warm in that suit—but it cooled slowly as we sat on the grass and watched the golden evening light travel slowly down the backdrop of a gray frame house behind Keillor on the stage.

Soon it was over and we headed back to the parking lot, where, as Keillor had predicted from the stage, there was a terrible traffic jam. We sat in the car for over forty minutes before we could move at all. I guess that’s why some people left immediately after the monologue. Even so, we were home by 9:45, late for us to be out, but not too late.

Prairie Home Companion will still be on the air after Keillor retires. He’s handing it over to a new host, Chris Thile, next fall. Thile was actually at the show we saw, singing and playing mandolin. I look forward to seeing in what new direction he takes the show, but I know I will always miss Garrison Keillor.

Wednesday: Our Musical Garden

Three nights later June had her last concert with Mr. G. Let me tell you a little about him before I write about the concert. He’s the kind of teacher who show up for everything, and I mean everything. Any time we were at June’s school whether it was for Reading Night or STEM night or any other kind of night, there was Mr. G. I heard from parents of kids who went to one of the middle schools that June’s school feeds into that he would go to their band and orchestra concerts to see his former students play. When a friend of June’s who acts professionally was in a show, Mr. G was in the audience. He’s that kind of teacher.

You might think if you were in charge of instrumental music at two large and growing elementary schools—there are one hundred thirty kids in band and orchestra at June’s school alone—and the school district told you they wanted you to teach at just one, you might breathe a sigh of relief, but Mr. G said no, he’d prefer to stay at both schools.  He wasn’t allowed to, though, so this was our farewell concert with him.

As always, June put a lot of thought into what to wear. She needed a new top, as she wore sweaters to both the Holiday Sing and the Winter Concert earlier this year, and after an unusually cool May, warm and humid weather is here. She and Beth went to the thrift store the weekend before the concert to look for a “plain white blouse,” or that’s what I told them to do. Beth told me ahead of time, she doubted they’d be coming home with anything plain. What June chose was a lacy, knee-length, short-sleeved dress. She paired it with black capris and finished the outfit with music note socks and shiny black Mary Janes.

There was none of the usual rush to find sheet music because she’d left it at school during the rehearsal earlier that day. We all would have liked Noah to come, but he was sunk deep in homework (and would end up staying up late that night trying to finish a research project for Physics).

We made our way to the gym, took our seats in front of the orchestra, and looked at the program while the musicians warmed up. The theme of the concert was “Our Musical Garden” and many of the kids were wearing leis. At first we thought it was just the fifth graders but then we noticed some of the fourth graders had them, too.

I noticed that along with his trademark vest, Mr. G wore a tie with musical notes which reminded me of June’s socks and that reminded me that just before June’s birthday when she was having her music-themed party and I was looking everywhere for music note pajamas with no success, it was Mr. G who found some for her online. She wore those not only at the party but once or twice a week after that until the weather got too warm for them.

June had her lessons this year with a group of four other string players who had at least two years’ experience at the beginning of the school year. She was the least experienced of the group, having started violin the summer before second grade. They’ve been working on an arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” all year and it was the first song in the concert. She was gratified to finally play it for an audience.

Between the string quintet, the advanced orchestra, the combined orchestra, and the combined band and orchestra, June played twelve pieces of music. My favorite was “Sakura, Sakura” a Japanese piece meant to evoke cherry blossoms, but the Can-Can is always fun, especially as they play it faster and faster.

The concert was quite eclectic. There was classical music by Dvorák and Handel, folk songs, jazz, blues, music from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. The fifth grade clarinets played “Kum-Bah-Yah” and the fifth grade trumpets played “Eight Days a Week.”

Here’s the string quintet playing Handel’s “Gavotte,” taken by mom of one of June’s friends.

In between the songs, a few students read original poems about their band and orchestra experiences.  Zoë’s was a limerick that started, “There once was a jolly old fellow/who even taught me to play the cello.” (That one was my favorite.) They ended the concert with “Ode to Joy,” which seemed appropriate to me because Mr. G brings so much joy to everything he does. When I asked June what she liked about him, she said, “He makes music fun.”

So thank you, Garrison Keillor and Mr. G. Thanks for the music and the fun. We really couldn’t have asked for more.

With What’s Available

I have been having trouble keeping the Ship of Steph from running aground recently. This is only one small example, but on Sunday afternoon when I was walking home from my weekly swim at Piney Branch Pool, I ran into my dissertation director and her partner (maybe wife now—I don’t know), another English professor, who was also on my committee. They also live in Takoma Park, a town of approximately 18,000 people, but oddly, I never see them. In the fifteen years since I got my Ph.d, I’ve seen the partner/wife once in a coffee shop, and the dissertation director…never. We had a brief, awkward conversation that left me feeling awash in feelings of failure and shame over the wreck of my academic career. It wasn’t their fault really, and I may even have been unintentionally rude to them in my brusqueness, but clearly even after nine and a half years out of the classroom and seven and a half years after I gave up on finding academic work (5/11/07), I am not completely over this loss.

I told two friends about this encounter; the first one works at the Folger Institute. Our older kids went to preschool together and for a long time I envied her job. Non-university-affiliated jobs for a Shakespearian are few and far between, so it seemed to me she’d hit the jackpot. Just now, she’s frustrated to be doing more work on the website and less scholarship and teaching than she’d like, so it was a shift of perspective for me to know the job I’d envied her for years was not perfect. On the flip side, the other person I told, a stay-at-home mom/blogger/part-time graduate student in library science, told me she was jealous of my job, because I work at home, writing, and get paid for it. Again, more perspective.

Then on Monday evening, June had a migraine and Noah was struggling with some middle school social drama I probably shouldn’t detail here and I just felt so sorry for both of them and in Noah’s case, helpless to do anything for him.  I at least know what to do when June has a headache. (Give her painkiller and anti-nausea medicine, put her to bed, hold her while she sobs, hold the basin and her hair when the anti-nausea medicine fails to work, stay with her until she’s almost asleep, then leave.)

But my moodiness, June’s headaches, and Noah’s being thirteen aside, I do have a positive story to tell you. Here goes:

The Halloween parade and costume contest was Saturday afternoon. On Friday afternoon, I wasn’t even sure Noah was going to be in it. Noah takes this contest very seriously, especially after he won in the most original category when he was ten (dressed as a newspaper, 11/1/11) and again when he was twelve (dressed as a SmarTrip, 10/28/13). This year, between being busy with school, and possibly more importantly, paralyzed by his desire to top last year’s costume, he didn’t even have any ideas yet. He just kept saying, “What could be better than a SmarTrip?” and I kept telling him it didn’t have to be better, it just had to be half-decent, and achievable with the available materials and time. He gets fixated sometimes, on the way he thinks things should be and can’t move forward with the way they are. Where do you think he gets that particular character trait? It’s a mystery.

Meanwhile, June’s costume was all set. She’s going as the girl from the ghost story who wears a green ribbon around her neck and when she takes it off her head falls off.  The previous weekend we’d gone to Value Village to buy her an old-fashioned looking second-hand black velour dress and some lace-up black boots and Target to get black tights and Jo-Ann’s to get some green ribbon.  June wanted to add some fake blood dripping out from underneath the ribbon to complete the effect (on the big day Beth managed to get a soaking-through-the ribbon look).

While I was waiting for the kids to come home from school Friday, I was thinking about the Halloween I was ten or so and dressed as a stick of Wrigley’s gum—a costume made of crepe paper and aluminum foil, which ripped almost as soon as I set out. I came home in tears and my mom thought for a few moments, and then left and came back with a rain slicker, an umbrella and a container of Morton’s salt. “You’re the Morton’s salt girl,” she said and Halloween was salvaged. I was thinking Noah might need a similar maternal miracle and wishing I could provide it.

But a little while after Noah came home, inspiration struck. He wanted to be a calculator. This seemed like a good idea. We had some large cardboard boxes he could cut up for a front and back panel. All he would need was some paint.  We called Beth and she offered to pick some up at the hardware store on the way home. In the meanwhile, he printed an image of a calculator, superimposed a grid on it, and then with June’s help, drew a grid on his cardboard. Next he sketched out the buttons, the display panel, etc. There are a lot of nice details, but my favorite is the number the calculator was displaying: 10.31.

By the time he went to bed the first coat of paint (dark gray, the background color) was applied.  It needed to dry before he could add other colors. In the morning he did a second coat and then did homework while that coat dried, and in the early afternoon, he applied the third and final coat.

He wasn’t ready yet when it was time to leave at one, so Beth drove June and me to the parade staging ground, where carnival games were in progress. The games were a new part of the festivities so it wasn’t clear when the contest and parade would start. Luckily, they went on long enough so that when Noah arrived around two, there was enough time to spare to watch his sister throw a ball at a pyramid of cans, and for them to stick their hands in boxes to feel “eyes” (grapes), “veins,” (spaghetti), etc. The jelly “guts” were so sticky when Noah put his hand in the “teeth” (dried beans) bin his hand came out with beans stuck all over it.

When it was time for the contestants to gather under the banners with their ages, June and I went to the seven and eight year old area and Noah and Beth went to teens and adults. We met up there with June’s friend Maggie, who was dressed as a leopard queen. She was wearing more leopard print items than I could count and a small tiara. Her face was masterfully painted as well. Noah wanted to know if she was queen of the leopards or a queen who just happened to be a leopard but we never got a straight answer. One of the judges asked June her name, which is a sign you are under consideration. I think this was the first year she’s been asked. The judge took Maggie’s name, too. (Last year Maggie won scariest for her zombie princess costume.)

While we were waiting to start marching June and I heard one of her peers say, “Daddy, I saw someone dressed as a calculator,” and I thought I saw a flash of annoyance cross June’s face, as if she was thinking, really, here in my area?

We walked with Maggie and her dad the rest of the route and met up with Beth and Noah at the end. Beth reported the judges had taken Noah’s name, too. A local band (one of Noah’s favorites, was playing while people milled around and waited for the contest results.

This was the first year the parade has been held in middle of the afternoon.  In the past it’s always been at dusk, which is spookier. We were all a little cranky about that, except June because it meant the parade didn’t conflict with her friend Claire’s Halloween party this year so she could attend both. Another advantage was that it was not freezing cold like last year. In fact, it was quite warm. June was actually hot in her black velour dress.

Finally the band took a rest while they announced contest results. A baby dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a prize, as did a preschooler dressed as a forest fire. In June’s age group, the leopard queen won most original (or maybe it was funniest) and scariest, the category June has decided is her goal, went to a Day of the Dead-style sugar skull.  June was very gracious, clapping for everyone who won and running over to offer her congratulations to Maggie.

Before they moved on to the nine-to-twelve group, the band played another song, as we waited rather impatiently.  When it was time to announce most original the announcer discovered the name was missing and said he’d come back to it.  I was hoping it would be Keira, a fourth grader from our bus stop who was dressed as a person tied to a rocket, with stuffed jeans-clad legs emerging from her waist as her real legs were hidden under the rocket’s flames. She won last year for her picnic table costume.

Teen to adult was next and when they announced the winners, Noah won for most original. June clapped and congratulated him. She has matured a lot since Noah first won a costume contest prize and she was jealous as could be, like a caricature of jealousy, really. Even so, we reminded her that Noah was ten and had worn a lot of very original costumes before his winning streak (three out of the past four years) started, so she shouldn’t be discouraged. The winner for most original in the nine-to-twelve group was finally confirmed and sure enough, it was the girl on the rocket.

We hung around to see who won the group costumes. Most original went to the family of one of June’s friends. They were dressed as a campsite (tent, can of bug spray, campfire, and s’more). Once we’d heard all the results, I bought Noah a Grandsons CD as a keepsake and we went to CVS to buy candy corn to eat during our next activity: pumpkin carving.

Later, while June attended Claire’s party, Beth, Noah and I ate Chinese takeout and I read him the first chapter of The Haunting of Hill House, one of my very favorite horror novels. It was a pleasant evening, one I will try to remember when I forget things don’t have to be perfect, just half-decent, and achievable with what’s available.